Last Sunday, Ichiro set a record as the oldest player to start a Major League Baseball game in centerfield during the modern ERA at 43 years old. This got us thinking: which players have put up the best seasons on the shady side of 40. Here are the Top Nine season by players over 40 years old.
The Over 40 Rules
In compiling our list we considered not just the player’s raw stats or WARWins Above Replacement. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system. totals, but also the position they played and their age overall. A season at 43 is more impressive than the identical season at 40. In the same vein, a great season from an old centerfielder or shortstop is more impressive than the same season from a firstbaseman. We also gave ‘extra credit’ for certain remarkable stats, like leading the league in a major category. Finally, we only listed one season per player – otherwise half the list would be Nolan Ryan (dude was a freak).
Honorable Mention: Ted Williams, 1960 (41 years old)
The Splendid Splinter’s final Major League season would have made the list if only he’d played more than 113 games. Playing so few games limited his overall contributions. Despite that, his season was still impressive, putting up a .316/.451/.645 slash line with 29 home runs and 72 RBI.
In fact, as we’ve noted previously, if Williams had qualified for the rate stats, he’d have led the league in Slugging and wRC+Weighted Runs Created Plus: A comprehensive measure of offensive production relative to the league. 100 is average and each point above or below is a percentage better or worse than the average player. at age-41. A damn impressive ending to the career of the greatest hitter to ever play the game.
#9 Best Season Over 40: Ty Cobb, 1927 (40 years old)
Though by the later 20s he was a throwback to the Dead Ball Era, hitting only 5 home runs in the same season Ruth hit his record 60 as the headlining star of the “Murder’s Row” Yankees, Cobb still posted the 6th best OBP and a wRC+ of 138, which was good for 11th in MLB.
Despite Cobb’s excellent season, one of two for the Philadelphia Athletics at the tail end of his career, and the As posting a 91-63 record, they finished 19 games behind those Yankees – perhaps the best team in MLB history. Cobb had a respectable season the next year, playing 95 games and hitting .323, and retired after the 1928 season. The Athletics would go on to win the World Series in 1929 and 1930 behind rising star slugger Jimmie Foxx.
#8 Best Season Over 40: John Smoltz, 2007 (40 years old)
After spending four years in the bullpen to protect his arm after Tommy John surgery, Smoltz moved back to the rotation, putting up 5 fWARWins Above Replacement as calculated by FanGraphs. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system. seasons from 2005-2007. That 2007 season, Smoltz’s final full season as a starter and his last truly productive season, was his best as a starter since the 1990s.
Smoltz ranked 5th in the majors in WAR, 7th in ERA, 5th in FIPFielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is scaled like ERA, so a “good” ERA number is also a good FIP score., 9th in strikeouts, and 8th in K-BB%Strikeout Percentage – Walk Percentage. Probably the best measure of both a pitcher’s strikeout skill and their control (and ability to prevent walks). When comparing pitchers with significantly different walk rates, it better reveals a pitchers power/control combination than K:BB ratio does (since that can be skewed by particularly good control, even with middling strikeout numbers).. Unfortunately, this season was also Smoltz’s swansong as a great pitcher. In 2008, he started strong and notched his 3000th career strikeout, but underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in June. In 2009 he bounced between the Red Sox and Cardinals, but had lost his stuff and retired at the end of the year.
#7 Best Season Over 40: David Ortiz, 2016 (40 years old)
Yes, Big Papi’s swan song last season was indeed as historically good as it seemed. Prior to the season, Matthew Kory at FanGraphs wrote “If David Ortiz can replicate the season he had just last year, which was a replication of the season he had the year prior to that, he’ll be in the discussion” for best age-40 offensive season ever.
Well, he didn’t just replicate his 2014-2015 performance, he exceeded it. At the (over)ripe age of 40, Ortiz lead the American League in slugging, wOBAWeighted On Base Percentage: A comprehensive measure of offensive production, measuring all at bat outcomes and placed on a scale roughly equal to “normal” on base percentage. .320 is average, .340 above average, .370 great, and so on., and RBI. Of our list, Ortiz is the only hitter to lead the league in more than one stat category and he posted the third highest wRC+ of his stellar career.
There’s not much to say about Big Papi’s final season other than it was really, really good. In addition to leading MLB in slugging (the only player over .600) and wOBA he also lead in ISOIsolated Power. A stat that represents how many extra bases a hitter gains per at bat. A measure of the “power” a hitter produces rather than a measure of overall offensive ability. ISO is the difference between Slugging and Average (i.e., a hitter that hits nothing but singles will have an ISO of zero because his slugging and average will be identical). A hitter with an ISO of .140 is average, .200 great, .250 a premier power hitter., he was tied for 11th in MLB in HR and AVG, 6th in OBP, and was 2nd in RBI and wRC+. He was so good offensively that even with the hit that DHs take in WAR calculations he has the 7th highest non-pitcher fWAR total in history, courtesy of the highest wRC+ of any hitter over 40 in MLB history.
#6 Best Season Over 40: Cy Young, 1908 (41 years old)
It shouldn’t be too surprising that the all-time leader in wins, games started, and innings pitched had productive seasons late in his career. In his age-41 season, the 19th of his career, Cy Young posted a microscopic ERA of 1.26 while winning 21 games.
While that ERA was obviously at least partially a product of the dead ball era, it was still 48% better than league average. Young posted an ERA-Adjusted Earned Run Average Minus – the ratio of the players ERA to league average ERA, adjusted for park effects. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an ERA- of 90 means the pitcher’s ERA was 10% better than league average, and an ERA+ of 110 means it was 10% worse. of 52 and and a FIP-Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is then adjusted for park effects and related to league average FIP. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an FIP- of 90 means the pitcher’s FIP was 10% better than league average, and an FIP- of 110 means it was 10% worse. of 69, both good for 2nd in the majors. His full statline is pretty amazing:
He threw 299 innings and posted a 0.89 WHIPWalks and Hits per Inning Pitched. A mesaure of how many baserunners a pitcher allows per inning. – good for 5th in MLB. Not only was Young still a good pitcher at age 41, he was still one of the best in the game. He also posted a terrific season the year before at age-40, one that could have made our list if we weren’t limiting things to one season per player.
Young pitched three more seasons past his sterling 1908 season, finishing his 22-season career without ever posting a FIP above league average (his worst FIP in any season was 98).
#5 Best Season Over 40: Roger Clemens, 2005 (42 years old)
Bluntly, Clemens’ 2004 season would rank higher on the list if it weren’t so likely that he had pharmaceutical assistance at the time. Clemens was absolutely one of the best to ever play the game, but it’s hard to take any of his later career stats purely at face value.
However, even if we adjust his performance downward a bit, Clemens is still one of the best 40+ performers in the history of the game and his 2003-2006 performance was exceptional. While his 18-4 record and 24.8% strikeout rate in 2004 was impressive, his performance the next season was even better.
In 2005 Clemens posted a major league leading 1.87 ERA, 58% better than league average (ERA- of 42). And while that was assisted by an MLB low BABIP, he also lead the majors with a FIP- of 67, and was 1st in the National League (2nd in MLB) with a FIP of 2.87. Clemens was 6th in MLB in WAR and 12th in K-BB% as well, while his 1.01 WHIP was good for 3rd.
As we said, the rest of his over-40 career was good, with two other seasons that could have made the list. By the rate stats, 2006 might have been his best post-40 season of all, but he was in “wake me for the playoff run” mode by that point and didn’t start pitching until late June.
#4 Best Season Over 40: Carlton Fisk, 1990 (42 years old)
Pudge put up a very impressive stat line in 1990, made significantly more impressive by the fact he did it at the beginning of his fourth decade behind the plate. Fisk’s career began with a 2-game cup of coffee in 1969 and at the beginning of his 20th season in 1990 he had played 1925 games at catcher, by far the most punishing position in the game.
It should be telling that when doing research for this article, not only was Fisk’s 1990 season the best season for any catcher over 40, it was the only season in MLB history in which a catcher played enough to qualify for the batting title. In fact, there are only four seasons in MLB history where a catcher has logged 400 plate appearances – Fisk’s 1989-1991 are three of them (Bob Boone’s 1989 is the 4th).
That makes Pudge’s 1990 just that much more incredible. Because not only was Fisk’s season “great for a 42 year old catcher” it was just great overall. He posted a .285/.378/.451 slash line with 18 HR, and a 133 wRC+. At age-42, Fisk was the 18th best hitter in baseball that season. His 5 fWAR ranked 12th in the American League and 19th in MLB. In other words, in 1990, Carlton Fisk was a top-20 player at an age where literally no other catcher in history had ever even played enough to qualify for the batting title. That’s good enough for #4 on our list.
#3 Best Season Over 40: Willie Mays, 1971 (40 years old)
Willie Mays’ terrible final season with the Mets in 1973 is often cited as an example in discussions of worst final seasons. The image of Mays falling down in the outfield has become so identified with with players who hang on too long, that it’s easy to forget just how good he was just a short time before.
Two seasons earlier, at age-40, Mays was still one of the best players in baseball.
He ranked 10th in MLB in fWAR and was 5th in wRC+ (the 40+ record until Ortiz topped it last season). Mays posted an NL-leading .425 OBP and contributed 23 stolen bases against 3 times caught. That was good for 3.6 BsRBaserunning Runs Above Average. A stat that attempts to measure all of a player’s baserunning contributions (stolen bases, grounded into double plays, etc.). Roughly 9-10 BsR is equal to one Win Above Replacement., 8th in the majors – not too shabby for a 40 year old. And while his home run total had fallen off a bit, he was still in the MLB top-20 with a .482 slugging percentage.
It’s a shame that Mays has become something of an icon of “career decline” since he held on to greatness a lot longer than most ever do.
#2 Best Season Over 40: Nolan Ryan, 1989 (42 years old)
As we said above, we could almost fill this entire list with seasons from Nolan Ryan. One of the game’s all-time greats, the Ryan Express was chugging along the tracks well into his 40s. In fact, Ryan’s stellar 1989 season was arguably the second-best of his career.
In Ryan’s first season with the Texas Rangers, he tallied 301 strikeouts, the first time an American league pitcher had topped 300 since 1977, when the league leader was…Nolan Ryan with 341 (then with the Angels). The 42 year old Ryan was 2nd in MLB with 7 WAR and a 2.51 FIP (behind AL Cy Young winner, Bret Saberhagen), and he lead the league with a 66 FIP-. He was the only pitcher to top a 20% K-BB% with 20.7% (Saberhagen was #2 with 14.7%) and he had 11.32 K/9 – 22nd highest of all time (Mark Langston was #2 that season with 8.46).
Better after 40?
Ryan had several other great seasons after he turned 40. His stellar 1987 season for the hapless Houston Astros stands out in particular. Despite his ugly 8-16 record, Ryan lead the league in ERA, FIP, and strikeouts (Ryan’s 1987 is exhibit A for why W-L record is bollocks). Even if we just count the seven seasons in Nolan Ryan’s career after his 40th birthday…
He’d be in the top 250 all-time for fWAR and strikeouts, he’d be top-80 in WHIP, and he rank 10th all-time in K/9. Not too shabby for seasons posted at an age when 99% of major leaguers are long since retired. In fact, we can make a damn strong argument that Ryan was a better pitcher after 40 than he was before. Here are his rate stats pre- and post-40:
In pretty much every stat, not only was Ryan better, he was noticeably better. K-BB% jumps off the page in particular. Ryan, one of the all-time great strikeout artists, actually struck out hitters at a higher rate in his 40s while also walking fewer.
Control was always Ryan’s greatest weakness and he didn’t post a BB% below 10% until 1985 at age-37. However, he posted a walk rate under 10% in half of his full seasons after turning 40 (3 of the 5 times in his career) and he only topped 10.5% in his final, partial season at age-46. It’s a pretty safe bet that no other player in history can claim they played their best baseball after turning 40.
#1 Best Season Over 40: Randy Johnson, 2004 (40 years old)
There really was no contest for the #1 spot on our list. Not only was the Big Unit’s 2004 season the best season by any player over 40, it’s one of the best seasons by any pitcher at any age. Johnson’s spectacular 2004 season ranks t-10th all-time in WAR, 17th in K-BB%, and 9th in FIP-. Needless to say, for players over 40, it’s first in essentially every category by a country mile.
In 2004, Johnson was the only 40+ pitcher in history to log a K-BB% ratio over 25% (only Ryan joins him over 20%, with 21% and 20.6% in 1987 and 1989). He’s also the only pitcher 40+ to post a FIP- under 60 (Ryan’s #2 at 64 in 1987). The 9.6 WAR isn’t just good for 10th all time, it’s the only 40+ season over 7 WAR, much less 8 or 9 (Ryan is again #2 again with 7 in 1989).
The Big Unit put up several other solid seasons north of 40 (2005 with the Yankees and 2008 with the D-Backs, in particular), but nothing close to his 2004 season. Randy Johnson’s 2004 was one of the best pitching seasons ever, and easily the best season by any player over 40 in the history of Major League Baseball.